Training Matters


Vol. 8, No. 3 • June 2007

Child Welfare Practice and Child Poverty in Rural NC

No consideration of child welfare practice in rural North Carolina would be complete without some discussion of the poverty that affects so many rural children and their families.

Defining Poverty
Anyone with an income insufficient to meet basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, other essential goods and services) is considered poor. The 2007 poverty line for a single adult under age 65 is $10,210. For a family with two adults and three children it is $24,130 (USDHHS, 2007).

Family structure has a significant impact on poverty. The highest poverty rates are found among rural, female-headed families (ERS, 2003a).

Rural Poverty
Nationally, poverty affects a larger percentage of households in rural areas than in urban ones (Strong et al., 2005). Of the 50 U.S. counties with the highest child poverty rates, 48 are located in rural America (Rural Families Data Center, 2004). Rural counties also account for 95% of counties in “persistent poverty.” A county is considered persistently poor if its poverty rate has been 20% or higher in each decennial census since 1960 (Miller & Weber, 2004).

In North Carolina 23 counties, all of them rural, have poverty rates over 18% (NCREDC, 2004). Most are located in Eastern NC.

In rural North Carolina, poverty rates are much higher for minorities. In 2000, the poverty rate for rural African Americans was 27%, more than 1.5 times greater than for rural whites. That same year the poverty rate for NC’s rural American Indians was 22%; for Latinos the poverty rate was 28% (NCREDC, 2004).

Rural Child Poverty
In most states the poverty rate for children is higher than for the general population. This is certainly true in North Carolina, where in 2000 the overall poverty rate was 12.3% and the child poverty rate was 15.7%. Our state’s rural children are more likely to be poor than their urban peers. In 2000 NC’s rural child poverty rate was 18.5% compared to a rate of 12.5% for urban children (NCREDC, 2006). In six rural NC counties, the child poverty rate is above 30% (NCREDC, 2004).

When children live in poverty—especially long-term poverty—the effects are far-reaching and can include:

  • Poor health, including low birth weight and chronic health problems such as asthma and anemia (Rural Families Data Center, 2004; Moore & Redd, 2002).

  • Inadequate health care: 19% of poor children lack health insurance, nearly double the percent of all children who lack coverage (Nat’l Center for Children in Poverty, 2006).

  • Economic hardships such as food insecurity and lack of affordable housing (Nat’l Center for Children in Poverty, 2006).

  • Negative educational outcomes. Poor children are more likely to demonstrate low academic achievement and to drop out of school (Moore & Redd, 2002). Studies indicate that the length of time a child spends in poverty is a strong predictor of school attainment (Duncan et al, 1994).

  • Personal challenges in the areas of social adjustment, esteem, depression and social competence (Moore & Redd, 2002; Huston et al., 1994).

  • Negative mental states and behaviors. In children long-term poverty is associated with feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, stress, and dependence. Current poverty is associated with external behaviors, such as aggression and disobedience (McLeod & Shanahan, 1993; DeCivits et al., 2007).

  • Risky behaviors such as smoking or engaging in early sexual activity. Teens from lower income families are more likely to become pregnant or bear children (Moore & Redd, 2002; Haveman & Wolfe, 1997).

  • Employment difficulties. As adults, kids who grow up persistently poor are more likely to earn less and to be unemployed more frequently than children brought up in families above the poverty line (ERS, 2003b).

  • Long-term poverty. Those who experience persistent poverty as children are much more likely to be poor as adults (Corcoran & Chaudry, 1997).

Poverty and Neglect
The correlation between child neglect with poverty is a strong one. “The poorest of the poor” have the highest rates of children who are neglected (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996).

Yet poverty itself does not cause neglect. Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you will neglect your children. However, poverty can be a significant factor when neglect occurs, since poverty is generally tied to decreased resources, increased needs, and an increase in risk factors. Many studies have correlated poverty with risks such as high infant mortality, substance abuse, criminal behavior, and higher levels of child maltreatment (Dubowitz, 1999).

Practice Implications
Clearly, poverty in rural North Carolina compromises the well-being and safety of children. It would be wonderful if child welfare workers had magic wands that could instantly alleviate family poverty. On their own they wouldn’t eliminate neglect—again, poverty doesn’t cause maltreatment—but they’d be a great help.

For the time being, however, we must settle for the next best thing: wholehearted collaboration with Work First and economic services programs. With their help and insights, child welfare professionals can address the lack of financial resources that often play such a big role when we’re setting up case plans and protection plans. To learn more about this crucial Multiple Response System strategy, see Children’s Services Practice Notes vol. 9, no. 3 (


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Save the Date!

We’re excited to announce that the third Multiple Response System Learning Institute will take place Aug. 27 through 29, 2007 in Asheville, North Carolina. The theme this year will be “Partnerships Taking Flight.” This event will offer a variety of MRS-related, skill- and knowledge-building sessions. Evenings will offer a chance to network with people from across the state. Keynote speakers will be:

There will be something at the Institute to interest just about everybody, and it will all take place in beautiful Asheville. Stay tuned for registration information!

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2007 Jordan Institute for Families